Sep 06, · The late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's final act at the Court was to remind the nation and the world of the human frailty of the men and women whose orders and decisions cut . William Rehnquist, 16th chief justice of the United States, appointed to the Supreme Court in and elevated to chief justice in Rehnquist served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. After the war, he attended Stanford University, where he was awarded bachelor’s (). Find out what will happen at a reaffirmation hearing in your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, and what types of questions the judge will ask. By Baran Bulkat, Attorney When you reaffirm a debt in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you enter into a contract with your lender (called a reaffirmation agreement) that makes you personally liable for the obligation.
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Bennett v. Jefferson County, No. Justia Opinion Summary The doctrine of equitable mootness, which permits courts sitting in bankruptcy appeals to dismiss challenges when effective relief would be impossible, applies in the Chapter 9 context.
Download PDF. Justia Legal Resources. Find a Lawyer. Law Students. US Federal Law. US State Law. These lists of cases have been used in academic research as a screen for the most important decisions. The Congressional Quarterly compilation has a distinguished list of compilers, but they did not indicate their criteria for inclusion, and the list may have a bias for constitutional decisions. The list is also merely binary, categorizing cases as major or not, without any other differentiation among individual opinions.
One of the most accepted measures for case importance in social science is New York Times front-page coverage of a Supreme Court opinion when issued. The measure has been used in numerous subsequent articles, including Michael A. Bailey et al. Collins Jr. Fowler et al. Supreme Court , 15 Pol. Analysis This standard contrasts with both the Oxford and Congressional Quarterly lists because it is a contemporaneous rather than retrospective standard.
Any identification of the most important cases in history should take advantage of how those cases were used over time. The contemporaneous New York Times measure could still have accuracy as a predictor of future importance, and the future significance of a decision may be obvious.
Maltzman and Wahlbeck also suggest that coverage is affected by the number of votes in the majority and whether the Chief Justice wrote the opinion, among other biasing factors. As with the accepted compilations of case importance, however, this standard is a binary one that simply puts cases in the categories of significant or not significant—without further differentiation.
Another possible standard for importance is inclusion in major law school constitutional law casebooks or political science texts. This measure has an obvious bias for constitutional decisions, excluding all others, and suffers other deficiencies as well.
The authors of casebooks, though expert, provide a small sample of commentators. In addition, they may choose cases that are pedagogically useful rather than those with the greatest importance. Balkin and Levinson address various features, beyond opinion importance, which go into the text of casebooks, including the significance of the particular audience.
The choices may also be influenced by the ideology of the authors. Another suggestion has been to use the number of law review notes received by a case as a cue for significance. While one might prefer law students to journalists as a resource for case significance, this measure too has the lack of historical perspective and possible geographical and ideological biases. Nor does it appear facially valid, as Brown v. Board of Education was treated in many fewer law review notes than Fuentes v.
Shevin , yet the former case is generally considered far more significant. Supreme Court Reports , 21 Harold J. Others have argued for measuring salience based on the number of amicus briefs filed at the Court, but this tool contains a substantial bias by case type, likely reflects other case traits such as legal complexity and ambiguity , and is difficult to use as a historic measure due to the lack of much amici activity until the mids.
Collins, Jr. Supreme Court , 5 J. Empirical Legal Stud. Moreover, any measure using amici could only reflect the state of the case as it approached the Court, not the resultant opinion; such a measure is thus incapable of capturing change in the legal importance of an opinion over time. While the presence of numerous amici is surely meaningful and we will use this in our analysis , it is not an ideal measure for the importance of Supreme Court decisions.
Certainly some decisions regarded as activist Brown or Roe v. Wade or Miranda v. Arizona clearly seem quite significant. Cross, Measuring Judicial Activism 1 A decision striking down a federal statute might seem quite significant, but federal statutes vary considerably in their practical significance. There are many different criteria for judicial activism, which makes it difficult to isolate such cases.
However, Schwartz provides no explanation for the method he used to identify the greatest cases. The notion of importance is somewhat ambiguous and multidimensional e. Some decisions, for instance, have a significant effect on public attitudes on political issues, independent of any legal consequence. Flemming et al. Our focus is on legal significance rather than political or societal significance. Reliance on prior opinions is the foundation of stare decisis, which is central to our law.
Gerhardt, The Power of Precedent Judge Posner, for example, used citations to assess the significance of Justice Cardozo. Posner, Cardozo: A Study of Reputation 80—90 Our measure of the most legally important cases in the history of the Supreme Court depends upon the number and pattern of citations received by a case.
Frequency of citation is a reasonable standard for measuring case importance. Friedman et al. If a Supreme Court opinion is never cited, that suggests that its content is not useful in the resolution of subsequent litigation.
Such an opinion could hardly be considered an important one. Conversely, if an opinion is frequently cited, that very fact suggests that it provides valuable governance or information. There is considerable variance in the rate at which Supreme Court opinions are cited by later Supreme Courts.
In addition, the average case received 7 citations by majority opinions of the Court over its life, with a standard deviation of 9. The cases with fewer citations especially those with none are plainly of lesser importance, as future Courts have found them to be largely irrelevant to their work. The Supreme Court, though, is only the tip of the judicial iceberg. Even if the Supreme Court rarely cites an opinion, it might still be legally very important if it is frequently used by lower courts, who decide the overwhelming majority of disputes.
We incorporate lower courts in our analysis. Citation rates for opinions are certainly influenced by the content of ensuing litigation. An opinion written in an area of the law that sees little litigation is less likely to be cited than one in a more litigated field, simply on grounds of relevance. This fact is relevant to case importance. If a legal question is so rare that it does not often arise in disputes, it probably is not an important one.
This possibility is discussed below at note 63 and accompanying text. The structure of the law is often characterized as a path-dependent system. Opinions are to some degree dependent on earlier opinions that they cite. From an economic perspective, this path dependence represents an efficiency adaptation, as subsequent opinions follow earlier opinions because it is less costly to do so.
The procedure has other benefits as well, because subsequent judges can use the information provided by the earlier holding. Ronald Dworkin has analogized stare decisis to a chain novel, in which succeeding authors build upon what was written before, in hopes of producing the best overall story. In a chain novel, the importance of a particular chapter depends critically on the degree to which its foundation is used by the authors of later chapters.
A character who appears in the second chapter but is never again mentioned has little importance in a novel. Given this path-dependent structure of precedent, the importance of an opinion is associated with its subsequent frequency of use as a citation by later opinions. Times , Jan. Schaefer, Precedent and Policy , 34 U.
One important reason for the Court to rely on precedent is to grant greater legitimacy to its decisions. The Court is often criticized for activism—making ideological political decisions—and this perception harms its legitimacy. Casey, U. There is evidence for these propositions.
Zink et al. In particular, opinions that overrule precedent rather than follow it and cases decided by minimum-winning coalitions rather than unanimously are generally held in lower regard by the public. Political scientists have argued that even if the Justices wanted to be uncontrolled policymakers, they would be constrained by legitimacy.
Ample evidence supports this position. Insofar as legitimacy is a concern, it is likely that relying on well-established precedents, often used by the Court, has greater value than relying on obscure precedents that have not been previously embraced. In addition to providing external legitimacy to opinions, reliance on precedent may also be used by Justices as a means of providing greater authority to their own opinions. One theory of the use of precedent suggests that it is a tool for judges to project power via their own opinions.
This has been modeled via game theory. While Justices may well independently value decision making according to stare decisis, 58 See, e. This path-dependency effect of precedent has been clearly demonstrated empirically. The authors found, for instance, that an opinion was more likely to be positively interpreted in a given year if it had a higher level of legal vitality, even after controlling for a whole host of additional variables.
Other factors also mattered, most notably the ideological distance of the Court from the precedent, but precedential vitality was consistently a significant determinant of subsequent legal interpretations. Hansford, The U. A citation measure reflects the evaluations of sitting Justices and judges about the importance of precedents for the disputes they resolve. Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process —65 If citations are a measure for case importance, one must decide: citations by whom?
The Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of American law, so Supreme Court citations are surely relevant. The Supreme Court sets the ground rules for all decisions and has an obvious influence on lower courts. However, it is those lower courts that resolve most of the disputes in our legal system. Consequently, citations by lower courts are also relevant criteria for any measure of case importance.
The comparative importance of particular levels of our judiciary is a debatable one, and we will report the results for different levels, leaving it to the reader to evaluate their relative significance. While citations are an obvious measure of the legal significance of a case in the corpus of stare decisis, they might be disputed as a misleading measure of case importance.
Use of citations as a measure of significance is subject to a variety of challenges, which we address in this section. While no measure is perfect, the citation metric is widely used and valid for measuring the significance of cases. The first and most common criticism of citation usage is that it fails to capture dispositive rulings that conclusively resolve legal issues. Some decisions may settle the law in a given area, setting out such clear directions that future cases in its ambit do not even arise.
Such a decision could be one of very great practical importance, defining the law for primary actors, who follow it faithfully. However, such a case would appear insignificant in any measure based on citations because the lack of subsequent litigation would correspond to a lack of citations. The facile answer to this criticism is that we are measuring for legal significance, not overall political or societal significance.
Under the operation of precedent at the Supreme Court, a decision rarely if ever truly settles the law in a fashion that halts future litigation. Even if a case did so, it might still assume importance in citations as precedent for other legal matters.
Under the strictest concept of stare decisis, a decision only resolves the dispute on the precise facts before the Court and is debatably analogous to other groups of facts. In practice, the language of opinions may functionally resolve many other circumstances that differ from those before the Court. The language choices in the opinion largely control how far beyond the instant facts its power stretches.
For example, if the court sets a rule, it ostensibly governs many differing factual circumstances, but if it sets a standard, it leaves the resolution of those cases unclear. Therefore, a clear rule might be said to settle a large number of cases and might appear falsely weak in a salience measure based on citations. The notion that any opinion, including one with a clear rule, settles the law so that it receives few future citations misunderstands the operation of precedent.
A bright-line rule may have the functional effect of setting broader boundaries than other types of opinions. But in each case, even with the bright-line rule, there will inevitably be legal questions at the margins. While the core of the rule may be settled and may not yield litigation, the marginal applications will. The creation of a rule in an attempt to settle the law also invites a series of future legal challenges even within its apparent core.
Consider Miranda v. In Miranda , the Court set down an unusually clear requirement that statements by a criminal defendant in police custody would be admissible only if the defendant were informed of his or her rights in a very specific way.
Yet the opinion left open many questions to be clarified by future decisions. What is the definition of custody or interrogation? McCarty, U. Innis, U. Williams, U. Texas, U. What about spontaneous statements made by a defendant, unprovoked by questioning?
What if the police used good faith? Leon, U. What if public safety requires prompt police action? However much the Court might wish to conclusively resolve a legal question, leaving no possible future disputes, the nature of the case-or-controversy requirement and opinion writing means that this is virtually impossible.
It is difficult to identify a single case that so settled the law that it rendered future citations unnecessary. See Michael J. Gerhardt, Super Precedent , 90 Minn. Mason L. Yet the cases known to be superprecedents have received numerous citations in later opinions. Marbury v.
Madison , 72 5 U. See Gerhardt, supra note 70, at —08; Sinclair, supra note 70, at As of this writing, Marbury has over 17, total citations in the Westlaw database. It has the fourth most citations of any case in Supreme Court history, garnering citations by the U. Supreme Court through See infra Table 1. Landes and Posner affirmed this conclusion about the settled case theory, writing:. If it is highly general, and therefore more likely to be an important precedent, it is unlikely to decide—so clearly as to prevent disputes or litigation from arising—the specific form of the question presented in subsequent cases.
Some cases may settle some legal issues, but if important, they are still relevant citations for issues on the margin or by analogy to different circumstances. In light of considerable empirical research, the formalistic vision of judges reliably adhering to precedent is no longer a viable one. See Jeffrey A. Emerson H. Cross, What Is Legal Doctrine? Justices are influenced to some degree by their personal ideological attitudes in their decisions, and they will try to avoid the governance of precedents that they find unappealing.
Segal and Spaeth found that Justices who dissented from an original opinion did not respect its power, but continued to dissent from future opinions relying on the original opinion.
Harold J. Litigants will probe even settled precedents, seeking exceptions to their controlling power or expansions of that power, and ideologically influenced Justices will sometimes respond. Rather, through a signaling process, they render decisions on particular cases in part to provoke access to additional cases that can be used to develop the ruling in the original case. Through its selective certiorari decisions, the Court sets the agenda for change.
A logical possibility might be the Slaughter-House Cases. This group of cases has been seriously criticized for neutralizing the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution 82 See, e. Black, Jr. Tribe, American Constitutional Law —11 3d ed. By definitively closing off a channel of potential constitutional litigation, the opinion was very important to the law.
However, one might expect the importance of the opinion to be obscured by citation studies—its significance would lie in cases that were not litigated because the Slaughter-House Cases created a clear rule.
The opinion for these cases thus presents a candidate for the settled law hypothesis. Raw Supreme Court citations to the opinion over time are set out in Figure 1. The score is then represented as a percentile; for example, a score of. Neither graph depicts settled law. As evident in Figure 1, Slaughter-House has received a considerable number of citations over its life, and even more importantly, continues to receive citations in the contemporary time period.
In addition, the authority score for the Slaughter-House Cases , while increasing substantially in the early years after its release, remains at about the 93rd percentile of all Supreme Court majority opinions as of These two Supreme Court measures thus capture the considerable significance of the opinion, even though it might be considered a case that settled an important area of the law. The settled law bias therefore may not seriously bias citation studies.
Moreover, one of our measures discussed below, the authority scores, may counteract any settled law bias to some extent. Throughout this Article though, we will remain alert to the possibility of a bias in the results. There may be an analogous problem in that an unusually ambiguous opinion might spawn a great deal of litigation, not because of its importance, but because of its lack of clarity. The uncertainty created by such a case would not associate with its importance.
When this occurs though, the burst of litigation and associated citations should be brief. The ambiguous opinion, being relatively unhelpful for the resolution of subsequent cases, should be supplanted by a more useful opinion. Thus, any positive effect from an initial ambiguous opinion should dissipate as it is interpreted. Some legal issues are settled. This provides an opportunity to test whether the settled case phenomenon undermines the meaning of citation studies.
Although the opinion settled one narrow legal question, it remained quite important in the network of Supreme Court precedent. While the settled case phenomenon is the most prominent challenge to use of citations, others are sometimes made. Not every citation is truly a useful precedent for a subsequent decision. Some citations may be trivial or unavoidable.
Some cases may get cited simply because the later court believes they were wrongly decided. Lindquist, Judging the Judges , 58 Duke L. Moreover, the overruling of prior precedents is quite rare. Jeffrey A. Segal et al. Of the 6, Supreme Court cases decided between and , the Court had overruled only of them by When a precedent is distinguished or narrowed, such purportedly negative treatment is still some testimony to the influence of that precedent. A study of circuit court citations found that the presence of negative citations did not bias its results.
The settled case phenomenon and other criticisms thus do not delegitimize citations as a measure of the importance of Supreme Court opinions. Indeed, citations have been widely used for this purpose, 97 See sources cited supra note 8. The usefulness of citation analysis has been shown in existing research to have criterion validity.
The study found that legal relevance score was a better predictor of future citations in the Supreme Court than were other scales such as presence on Oxford or Congressional Quarterly lists, appearance on the New York Times front page, or even the raw number of citations to a case.
A historical use of network analysis on Supreme Court citations provides further validation. Leicht et al. Physical J. B 75, 83 This research demonstrates that use of citations is associated with opinion content and that the importance of citations is associated with the state of the law at any given time. Citations remain an inexact measure of opinions and their importance.
This does not defeat the value of research on citations, though. Put otherwise, we have no doubt that, as is the case for all proxy measures, our measures of legal significance contain error. The operative questions, however, are the degree to which this error is random and the overall signal-to-noise ratio in the measures themselves. Citations are a useful tool for assessing opinions retrospectively. We employ the Supreme Court citation count, the lower court citation count, and the Supreme Court legal relevance scores as separate tools.
This enables some cross-check on the findings of any one measure and potentially isolates different types of effects. The following Part describes our methodology for quantifying the precedential significance of opinions from the Court. Some opinions simply involve more important legal or societal issues, at least for purposes of future cases that can cite them. The nature of the opinion itself may have an influence on whether and the degree to which it is cited by later holdings.
Yet the presence of those citations is surely a signal to the importance of an opinion. While it is no surprise that opinions are not equivalent, existing empirical research has largely treated them as if they were. Opinions are judged simply by binary outcomes, based upon who won or lost the case. These outcomes may be categorized as liberal or conservative, but they treat all liberal or conservative outcomes as if they were equal, though this is plainly not the case.
In this Article, we seek to differentiate among judicial opinions, based on the significance of the opinion according to its subsequent citations. Our full data set includes all opinions of the United States Supreme Court, including orally argued per curiam decisions, released between and for a total of 26, Court opinions. Supreme Court Opinions , 45 Hous. We also have similar data for the total number of circuit court and district court majority opinions that cited each of these opinions of the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court opinions are cited by appellate and district court majority opinions an average of 55 and 66 times over their lives, respectively. The interquartile range for the number of citations by appellate is 4 and 45, while this range is 1 and 34 citations for district courts. Some limited research has already been done on this issue. One study identified the most legally important cases based on both the citations contained in the opinion and the citations eventually received by the opinion.
Another study used network analysis to identify the most important cases through various citation measures. We build upon these earlier studies in this research, by using additional measures and studying the characteristics of the most important opinions.
In this section we identify the most important Supreme Court decisions on different citation metrics. The first is simply the number of subsequent citations at the Supreme Court itself. This raw citation count is the conventional measure used in prior research.
An opinion that received no citations would not be influential in the law. The greater the number of citations received by an opinion is some testimony to its significance to the Court.
Table 1 sets out the list of top cases by simple number of citations the opinion has received. The top of the list is dominated by older cases, which have had more opportunities to be cited, given their age. The very high ranking of Boyd v. United States U. Boyd did make the Oxford list of decisions The Oxford Guide, supra note 10, at Powe, Jr. California, U. United States, U. Being the origin of the exclusionary rule, it readily merits a high standing.
The highest-ranking modern case is Miranda. Thurgood Marshall described Thornhill v. Alabama U. Justice Murphy and Civil Rights , 48 Mich. This gives some facial validity to the use of this metric. It seems to provide at least a rough approximation of cases that are generally considered to be significant.
Citation numbers at the Supreme Court appear to be a reasonable operationalization of case importance. Looking at the Supreme Court, however, may not be the best guide to case importance. Its decisions are but the tip of the iceberg. While the Supreme Court decides fewer than one hundred cases per year, the lower federal courts resolve thousands of disputes.
Perhaps the circuit courts are the crucial level of the federal judiciary. Because the Supreme Court issues so few decisions in a given year, it cannot address most of the legal topics litigated annually. Cross , Decision Making in the U. Courts of Appeals 2 The circuit courts defer to factual findings, so their opinions explicate the law, not simply individual case facts.
Yet the circuit courts rely on Supreme Court opinions in making their decisions. Therefore, circuit court citations offer an important tool for measuring the importance of Supreme Court opinions. Table 2 sets out the most cited Supreme Court opinions at the circuit court level. While the circuit court list contains several cases that are widely regarded as being seminal e. The top case on the list, Strickland v. Washington , dealt with the ability to obtain a writ of habeas corpus due to the ineffectiveness of counsel at trial.
The same issue was also the basis for the third and fourth cases on the list. California , U. Virginia , U. None of these opinions appear on the Oxford list or the Congressional Quarterly list of important decisions, and they were never covered on the front page of the New York Times. The large number of citations received by these cases appears to be attributable to the frequency of prisoner petitions for relief, often brought on a pro se basis. The results imply that habeas corpus is by far the most important subject for Supreme Court decisions, which seems questionable.
The second case, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. The fifth case, McDonnell Douglas Corp. Green , was the seminal holding on the burden of proof under Title VII, a commonly litigated provision.
These cases rank high on the list because of the frequency with which these legal issues are adjudicated. Any leading Supreme Court decision on these questions could well be highly cited.
However, even a moderately good decision, workable at the lower court level, would not necessarily need overruling or revision. This reflects a possible defect in this metric as a measure of opinion quality or significance. A case that is cited often for routine matters may be less significant than one cited less often but that is outcome determinative in the subsequent opinion. The seventh case, Apprendi v.
New Jersey , may reflect a slightly different effect that could be distinguished from case significance. As a result, large numbers of existing sentencing decisions became subject to challenge. Perhaps such disruption is a fair measure of significance, but it too is colored simply by the very large number of criminal sentencing cases. Once its scope is settled, it may become much less significant in the long run.
The citation rates for circuit court cases appear to be substantially a feature of lower court litigation patterns and procedural rules. This is surely a measure of the relevance of the opinions to practice at the circuit court level.
It is not necessarily a perfect measure of the importance of opinions, though, as general procedural standards are highly important at this level, and not all their decisions are of equivalent importance.
The role of precedents in the district courts should also be evaluated. District courts obviously decide more cases than any other level of the federal judiciary. While the decisions of district courts are based substantially upon the case facts, the courts must apply the law to those facts, and Supreme Court opinions constitute an important source of that law. Hence, their citations may be influenced by the filter of that circuit court.
Hence, the citation rates of district courts have significance, and Table 3 sets out the Supreme Court opinions most cited by federal district courts. The district court list shares characteristics with the circuit court list. The leading two cases deal with the standards for summary judgment, Anderson v. Zenith Radio Corp. Catrett, U. Affairs v. Burdine, U.
Rhodes, U. The list of top cases cited by the Supreme Court conforms more closely to popular views on case importance than do the circuit court or district court lists. In this sense, the lower court lists may lack what is called facial validity. The lower courts remain a valuable measure of the significance of opinions within the body of United States law. The definition of importance is at issue here.
Perhaps the fact that the opinions on summary judgment or habeas corpus are so often cited by lower courts is clear evidence of their importance within the law. As noted above, the frequent citations can simply be a product of the types of cases most often litigated rather than anything related to the opinion itself, and the citations may be perfunctory. We will remain agnostic on the value of the lower court citation counts and report results for each of the court levels.
To the raw citation counts for the Supreme Court, we add a more sophisticated calculation, which uses a network methodology to generate legal relevance scores. Network studies are increasingly used throughout the sciences to measure various phenomena.
Strogatz, Exploring Complex Networks , Nature , The most common use of networks probably involves social interconnections, such as patterns of Facebook friendships. The network of citations of Supreme Court opinions is somewhat different.
While two people may befriend one another, two cases cannot. The later case may cite an earlier opinion, but the earlier case cannot cite the later one, being not yet in existence. This feature makes the law a time-directed network, where links between cases can go in only one direction. Our research enables an evaluation of an opinion based on the number of cases that cite that opinion plus the significance of those citing cases based on the citations they receive.
Gerhardt, The Irrepressibility of Precedent , 86 N. While the precise meaning of the network of citations is yet obscure due to limited research , the connections plainly contain information for understanding the operation of stare decisis and identifying key historic opinions.
We use the legal relevance score for opinions building on mathematical tools developed for internet searches. See Fowler et al. It correlates with raw citation numbers, because more citations provide more scores it can accumulate, but it also incorporates important information in the indirect linkages among cases. This legal relevance score is arguably a better measure of opinion significance than available alternatives.
First, the legal relevance score captures both the direct and indirect connections in the network and thus improves upon a measure that includes only direct citations. In legal terms, the progeny of a Supreme Court opinion is a consequence of the opinion, and this relationship is captured by the legal relevance scores. Roe v. Wade , U. Cases that cite Roe on abortion rights will often not cite Griswold. Yet the earlier opinion in Griswold had a role in even those cases that did not directly cite it.
The legal relevance score captures this indirect effect. The legal relevance score captures both the number of citations received by an opinion and the significance of the citing cases as measured by the number of citations their cited cases receive. While raw citation counts can change over time though they can only increase, not decrease , the legal relevance score metric is more dynamic and can either increase or decrease and tends to change more rapidly than raw citation counts.
It serves as a measure of the significance of these cases as of the date of our measurement calendar year For an example of the effect of these legal relevance scores, consider the opinions on abortion rights.
An earlier study found that Roe actually had fewer direct citations in the Supreme Court than did Webster v. Reproductive Health Services U. Yet the latter two opinions were the progeny of Roe and may not have existed absent the earlier opinion in Roe. Because they cited and relied upon Roe in their decisions, Roe gets some credit for their citations and has a higher legal relevance score than do the later decisions. Intuitively, Roe seems the more important decision, and the legal relevance score therefore seems to better capture the importance of the opinions.
The top cases for legal relevance scores are set forth in Table 4. We note that the legal relevance scores are measured as a percentile.
For example, Cantwell is above the 99th percentile on the score. Many of the cases regarded as most important appear high on this list, though the top two cases, Cantwell v. Connecticut and Schneider v. State , might seem surprising. It therefore may be the foundation for the large number of cases evaluating the constitutionality of state actions with respect to religion. Schneider was an early freedom of speech opinion, striking down a local ordinance that barred persons from distributing handbills door-to-door and on public streets.
It created the public forum doctrine for free speech that has been the subject of much subsequent litigation that reached the Court. Although its direct citation numbers are not near the top of the historic list, its progeny effect is captured in the legal relevance score, which vaults it to second on our list. The highest legal relevance scores tend to be more recent decisions than the raw citations list, though McCulloch still checks in at number This is because the classic cases may have been transcended in their importance by intervening decisions, and these scores reflect the contemporary importance of individual opinions.
The legal relevance scores are ever changing, as described in the following section. We believe that the Supreme Court legal relevance scores are the best measure for case importance, but others may disagree, and we will report our analysis for the raw citation scales as well.
Rather, we measure importance in the law. However great an opinion may be, if it lies fallow and uncited, that opinion is not making much of a difference in the law. Hence, it is worthwhile to assess the determinants that make a case more important in the corpus of stare decisis. As Supreme Court terms pass, many additional opinions are rendered, which increases the opportunities of a case for citations.
Older cases plainly have more opportunities, as more opinions have been rendered in which they may be cited. The opportunity to receive citations is therefore greater in recent years, which may enhance the scores of relevant recent opinions. Regardless of this effect, there is reason to believe that the significance of opinions diminishes over the years.
In this research, Landes and Posner propounded a capital investment analogy to the creation of precedents. Judges devote effort to the creation of precedential opinions as an investment in their holdings. Supreme Court precedents depreciated more slowly than those of circuit courts, which was ascribed to their broader generality.
A study of state supreme courts found similar evidence of the depreciation of precedents. This depreciation effect, though, is not uniform, and some cases may have significance that continues for decades or even centuries. The change in case importance over time has been studied with quantitative analyses of legal relevance scores.
For an example, consider Townsend v. The pattern of citations to Townsend is displayed in Figure 3. The opinion saw a steady rate of citations and a burst of use even twenty years after it was rendered. After about twenty-five years, though, its value as a precedent flattened out considerably. This conclusion is buttressed by the change in the legal relevance scores for this case as seen in Figure 4.
Other factors may also influence the change in importance. Past opinions will be cited only to the extent that they are relevant to the legal issues addressed in the latter opinion. For example, our history has seen a dramatic change in the legal topics of cases taken by the Court.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the Court focused on economic questions, while the latter half of the century saw a shift to jurisprudence centering on individual and civil rights. The era has also seen the adoption of intervening constitutional amendments and statutes that inevitably shift the cases taken by the Court.
This intuitive effect has been confirmed by empirical research showing that the issue area of citations corresponded to the issue area of the underlying precedent. Consider, as an example, the difference in the importance between cases that overrule precedent and those that do not.
Due to their causing an abrupt change to the legal status quo, one would expect that they would be more central cases in the network of law than cases that do not overrule precedent. We offer a systematic test of this hypothesis below, and here we simply report the average legal relevance between these two types of cases. Figure 5 shows that for nearly the entire range of the age of precedent, cases that overrule precedent are more important than cases that do not.
We also see that overruling cases acquire importance more quickly than their non-overruling counterparts, and this legal status advantage does not disappear until an overruling case is nearly fifty-seven years old. Some cases may be perceived as being of great importance when in fact they will have very little impact. Our top twenty-five lists above correspond roughly to perceptions of the importance of cases, but there are exceptions. Some cases perceived as highly significant, either contemporaneously or even retrospectively, have had relatively little value, as measured by citations.
The legal significance of other opinions, as measured by citations, has been overlooked by the legal expert evaluations.
Consider Boyd v. It was a seminal decision on the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and held that constitutional protections for the security of persons and property should be liberally construed. Yet it is not generally recognized as one of the key Supreme Court opinions, though its citation history suggests it should be so regarded. For the vast majority of opinions, our citation evaluations conform to general expectations.
Cases that make the Congressional Quarterly or Oxford lists of important decisions have an average legal relevance score in the 89th percentile for all opinions; those not on the lists have a mean score in the 47th percentile, a statistically significant difference. However, there are individual cases where the importance assessments differ. In this section, we compare the lists of cases perceived as important with those that have proved most important by our authority scores.
For perceived importance, we use the lists compiled in Congressional Quarterly and Oxford. For each of these cases, we examined their authority scores as of Twelve cases tied for the lowest authority scores are among those included on the Congressional Quarterly and Oxford lists of important cases the most overrated opinions , presented in Table 5. Our measures confirm their relative insignificance. The results of our legal relevance score findings seem reasonable, as these opinions are relatively obscure ones.
These findings must be qualified by the fact that it is a picture of the most important cases as of , when our calculations were made. As the above section noted, the legal relevance scores change over time, sometimes dramatically.
For example, according to legal relevance scores, United States v. Libellants of the Schooner Amistad the famous Amistad decision 40 U. Yet by , it had sunk to being one of the least important cases on legal relevance scores.
Our calculations are of relatively contemporary significance. For the most underrated cases, we looked for the highest legal relevance scores for cases that did not make it onto the Congressional Quarterly or Oxford lists.
Table 6 displays this list of cases. Our list of underrated cases by the Congressional Quarterly and Oxford lists contains at least a few cases the reader will recognize—probably at least Grayned and Monroe. Other cases on the list are less well known. Some may be familiar with Winters v. Police Department of Chicago v. Mosley dealt with the public forum doctrine and time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, and it has been very important in that recurring area of the law.
Prince v. Massachusetts found that the government properly had broad authority to protect children even from their parents. McGowan v. Maryland is exceedingly important for upholding the constitutionality of Sunday sales prohibitions, even though religious in foundation, so long as they had a secular purpose.
Had it come out differently, Establishment Clause jurisprudence could be far different. There is a clear correspondence between the cases that are widely appreciated as important and those that receive the most citations and have the highest legal relevance scores.
There is some divergence between perception and citation reality, though, as illustrated by our list of overrated and underrated cases.
Public perceptions sometimes fail to appreciate the legal importance of some opinions, which we can capture through a study of citation frequency. To the extent that these factors are within the control of the Justices, the identification of determinants could have great importance in evaluation of the Court. In this Part, we identify the determinants of more important Supreme Court opinions.
The necessary data are not available for the full history of the Court though; thus, much of this analysis is limited to opinions rendered since , for which the full case data is available. There is surely some randomness to the significance of an opinion. Cantwell v. Schneider v. State is high on our list because it was an early decision on free speech law, See U. Nevertheless, opinion quality is relevant to our measures.
Had these cases come out the other way or contained different legal analysis, their importance might be much less. The significance of Supreme Court opinions is not foreordained by the case facts or legal questions addressed, however. In , there was an expectation that Berkemer v.
McCarty U. We attempt to piece out the various factors that may drive the importance of a Supreme Court opinion and discover to what extent the opinion itself matters as opposed to immutable external circumstances.
We consider intrinsic case characteristics, age, features of the opinion itself, and control variables to assess the determinants of opinion importance by our measures. Certain intrinsic case characteristics may determine the significance of an opinion for future citations, independent of the opinion itself.
Some topics are simply more important for the Supreme Court or lower courts. The Supreme Court sets its agenda through certiorari decisions. If it takes cases of a given type, prior opinions of that type will receive more citations. Lower courts have their agendas set by litigants, and those decisions will also influence citation rates. In addition, certain legal groundings for opinions may produce more subsequent citations. Spaeth et al. Lee Epstein et al. Louis U.
Decisions in some issue areas are sure to have greater future citation impact than others. A decision interpreting the Bankruptcy Code, for example, will most commonly be cited in other bankruptcy decisions. If the Court does not accept certiorari in additional bankruptcy cases, the original decision in that area is unlikely to be much cited.
The nature of the categories may not be entirely transparent, and more detailed descriptions of the categorization can be found in the codebook for the database. In , the Court decided 48 cases out of total that were categorized as economic issues.
This number steadily declined to only 10 cases out of 77 total in During this time period, the Court took many more cases involving the Bill of Rights and civil liberties. The change in the nature of the citing cases is sure to influence the cases cited in an opinion. To separate out the effect of case type, we isolate civil liberties cases. These include those categorized in the Supreme Court Database as involving First Amendment issues, due process, rights of criminal defendants, privacy, and civil rights.
The power of this issue-area effect is measured by the dummy variable Civil Liberties. Some have argued that the Court should give its greatest deference to stare decisis in its economic opinions because people have adapted to them through private ordering. Whitney, U. If this is indeed the case, one might expect precedent to be more powerful in economic decisions. Businesses adapt to the law. They can write contracts based on their understanding of the law or possibly to avoid its application to their circumstances.
Thus, they have a reliance interest in the prevailing law, the use of which is the basis for their private ordering of their actions.
Such private ordering was the very first reason given for stare decisis by Hart and Sacks in their classic work on the legal process. Hart, Jr. Powell, Jr. Tennessee, U. This position has a pedigree in the earliest opinions of the Court.
The logic of the position is not inexorable, however. People order their lives in reliance on the law in areas other than economics. For example, the reliance interest in abortion decisions has been emphasized. Nevertheless, the Court has been emphatic about the importance of stare decisis in economics cases. We isolate economic precedents using the categorization of the Supreme Court database.
These cases include the area of economics, plus cases involving federal taxation and labor. If an opinion falls within these areas it is coded as the dummy variable Economic for our analysis. This enables us to isolate any unique power of precedent for economic decisions, as often hypothesized.
In addition to the issue area of the case, some legal areas may also influence future citations. The Court addresses matters of constitutional interpretation, statutory interpretation, the review of administrative agencies, admiralty common law, and other broad legal categories.
Some legal areas of cases might be expected to yield more citations than others, which we measure by several categories. One of the most common hypotheses is that the Court will give greater weight to statutory opinions than those in constitutional law. One author argued for a rule in which stare decisis in statutory cases is absolute, though he recognized that this was not the case. A study found that the Court is less likely to overrule statutory precedents, which seems consistent with this stated legal norm.
Hansford, Explaining the Overruling of U. Supreme Court Precedent , 63 J. Felton, U. The distinction reportedly has persisted since the first half of the nineteenth century.